I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi, or anything I've borrowed and modified from the Banestorm setting published by Steve Jackson Games.
The mega-map of Yrth can be found at www. sjgames [.com] /gurps/books/banestorm/img/banestorm_world. jpg (remove spaces and brackets).
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"Thank you for your report, and your efforts. I truly do appreciate the risks you take," Baroness Bronwyn of Durham said quietly, careful to keep her shock and worry hidden. She jotted down several items on a piece of old parchment along with prices and stood to hand it across the small table she was seated at to the ragged, motley-dressed wandering merchant trader before her. "Take this to my steward for payment for the books," she ordered as she sat back down, "and tell him I said to see to it that you have a decent meal and a corner to sleep in."
Warren Longshanks bowed extravagantly in the manner of the wandering player he had been at one time. "Thank you, My Lady, I live but to serve," he said before hurrying from the room.
Bronwyn waited until the door closed behind him, then turned her chair to face the others standing in her working room — the ones that she had ordered be quietly located and led to that room through the secret passage when she'd been notified that her spy in New Jerusalem had arrived. She motioned the two men — Old Ranulf, the captain of her men-at-arms, and Sir Geoffrey — to several chairs by the currently empty and cleaned fireplace and rose to join them. The single lady-in-waiting that the baroness accepted as necessary for appearance's sake (and longtime friend) hurried to fill and serve goblets of Bronwyn's favorite ale, then retreated to a corner by the window and resumed her embroidery.
"So," Bronwyn began once everyone had had a chance to enjoy some of the ale, "the Hospitallers are secretly loading supplies on river barges."
Geoffrey shrugged. "So they're getting ready for an expedition. We knew they might be coming." He'd been more than a little surprised to be included in the impromptu war council — as courteous and welcoming as everyone had been, he was the brother of one of the rebel nobles. And Durham was one of the border baronies with a less-than-friendly Megalos on the other side of that border. He'd expected that courtesy as befitting his rank as a knight and noble heir, but he'd also expected to be kept away from the center of things as he had been back in Carrick Town.
Ranulf chuckled, hiding an approving smile. Geoffrey had impressed the grizzled veteran in the weeks since the younger man's arrival, both by his skill with horse, lance and sword and by his good-natured acceptance of both the wariness with which he'd been greeted and any task he'd been assigned. But for all that, Sir Geoffrey was a young man lacking in larger practical experience, as his statement had just demonstrated. "You're right, Sir Geoffrey, we already knew they might be coming, but now we know where — or is there anywhere they might be headed with those barges that we would care about, that doesn't go through this barony? No, if the Hospitallers plan to invade, it won't be north through Fordham as the Megalans usually do. If that was the case, they'd be sending those supplies north to Arvey."
Geoffrey grinned ruefully. "Yes, I suppose knowing that might be important," he agreed, adding his own chuckles to the other two's amusement.
Still smiling, Bronwyn said, "From the reports we have from the king there is no evidence of the legion along the southeast border mobilizing — just the opposite, troops are being pulled out, most likely headed for Hyrnan to deal with the dark elves in the Blackwood. So this is most likely an attempt by the Grand Master to distract us from whatever we might plan. If he does attack without legion support, it'll be as a response to what we do, and it will take some time after the king marches from Carrick Town for word to reach him. So, Ranulf, we'll hold off on summoning our own people from their lands until after the king marches, to avoid alerting the Grand Master ourselves and to save on our own stores here. We'll know long before any spy could get word to New Jerusalem, so our people will be all nice and concentrated before those saintly hypocrites hear about it. Considering how late the king will be marching, by the time the Grand Master learns of it we may well be getting close to the first snowfall so I doubt he'll march on us. Still, better to be safe. If nothing else, we can use the practice in mobilizing."
She paused for a moment until both men had nodded their agreement, then continued. "However, there is one task that we need to start on as soon as we can — the town of Pilton. I've just received a report I requested on the state of its walls, and there are ... issues. The city's inhabitants haven't been lax, exactly, just ... comfortable with the way Megalos has been avoiding us for the past few generations." She focused on her guest. "Sir Geoffrey, I want you to journey to Pilton and take charge of the necessary repairs. As well, learn the ground around the city. If the Hospitallers do come at us, that is where I want to meet them."
Geoffrey nodded his agreement. Pilton was the walled town on the river closest to the eastern border, and he didn't care how many barges the Hospitallers had available, the army wouldn't be travelling on them — the barges were for supplies, the army would be marching along the bank of the Conn. More, the Grand Master couldn't leave Pilton unoccupied behind him, not the way it dominated the river.
As he thought over everything involved in his new assignment, he felt something inside unclench. Since his arrival he had been treated with all courtesy, but had never been able to shake the feeling that everyone was watching him with wary eyes. He couldn't blame them, not with his older brother being one of the rebel lords, but it had still been wearying. But this task — this was vital, and a silent gift of trust that he hadn't even hoped for.
Then he remembered another soul that had seemed more than a little lost since her arrival, spending much of her time on the battlements staring out across the town and countryside beyond — lonely. He could understand that. He asked, "Can Ukyo come with me? I think she could use a change of scenery."
Bronwyn's eyes widened, then narrowed in suspicion. "She isn't another serving wench you can tup for your pleasure," she warned.
"Hey, Maye enjoyed our sport as much as I did!" Geoffrey protested. "And I gave you enough gold to see to the child's needs once it's born."
"True enough," Bronwyn acknowledged, "but whatever Ukyo may be, she is nothing like Maye. She's much more intelligent, for one thing."
"It isn't her mind I'd be worried about," Geoffrey said with a laugh, "it's that strange ax she carries. Credit me with some intelligence, I am not going to seduce a woman that can slice me into pig feed without breaking a sweat."
Bronwyn grinned, remembering Ukyo's demonstration of her fighting skill the day after her arrival — and how she had easily beaten every man-at-arms and knight at the castle, and then followed it up by beating them all at once — and Geoffrey had been among the men she had handled like children. But he had a point — Ukyo had demonstrated her skill, told what she knew of her people's capabilities and the king's plans for them, but since then had seemed a bit lost. Yes, a change of scenery will do her good. "Very well, ask her if she would care to join you. And you may take your pick of the men-at-arms quartered here to take with you. Meanwhile," she continued, rising to her feet with the two men hastily following her example, "I will make another trip out to see Mad Marc."
"Again?" her captain asked with a groan.
"Yes, again," she replied firmly. "I know I'm probably wasting my time, but he's the only wizard in the barony, and the Hospitallers hate magic — they won't have any wizards with them. He will be invaluable if I can convince him to help us."
"True enough," Ranulf agreed, shrugging. "And even when he rejects your offer again, the ride will do you good. You've been cooped up in this castle too long."
"That it will, old friend," Bronwyn agreed, smiling at the thought of getting a horse between her legs and open countryside before her. It had been too long. Still, she wished she could tell her liege man and old friend the truth, she hated keeping secrets from the man that had faithfully served her family all his life. But some truths were much better left unspoken until they were needed, and just how thoroughly Mad Geoffrey lived up to his name was one of them — not many wizards had an underground engineer hidden away in his tower's basement making gunpowder, after all. From what Mad Marc had said (with more enthusiasm than she found comfortable) at least in part because the ones that tried had a tendency to die when their towers exploded.
Nabiki glanced up from her book (the Bible, in Japanese) at the knock on the door to the suite she was sharing with Myrddin. Aylara set aside her mending and rose from her own seat to hurry to the door. The maidservant had assigned herself to be Nabiki's constant companion to the point of sleeping on a mat in the parlor (for reasons that completely escaped Nabiki, nor had Myrddin had a clue — and Aylara had only smiled and changed the subject when Nabiki asked her). She asked, "Who knocks?"
"Sir Galardon, sent by the king for Maid Nabiki," came the muffled answer.
Aylara turned to where Nabiki was curled up in her favorite upholstered chair. "My Lady, Sir Galardon comes with a message from the king."
Nabiki suppressed a giggle — even after the weeks she had been living in the castle of Carrick Town, the manners still felt like playacting. Marking her place and setting aside her book, she uncurled and rose to her feet to hurry into the sleeping chambers and its mirror. She checked her reflection and decided her hair wasn't too much out of place from its simple style, smoothed down her equally simple dress (though costly — there was nothing too costly for Myrddin's putative mistress), and strode back into the parlor to nod to Aylara. The maidservant opened the door, to reveal the king's foster brother ...and the court's knightly fop.
Well ... 'fop' may have been a trifle unkind, this was Caithness, after all. Nabiki suspected that a true Megalan knight would find Sir Galardon's manners and dress unrefined, even crude. The cut of his clothes might have been impractical for wearing under armor, but it was of the same practical cloth as the other knights she had observed. And as much as those knights might have looked askance, if not disgust, at his hose (rather than more practical trousers), elaborately embroidered tunic and bejeweled and filigreed hilts of sword and dagger, the one time Nabiki had seen him draw that dagger she had noted that the blade at least was fine steel and eminently practical — and competently handled.
Now Galardon strode in and bowed deeply before Nabiki, sweeping off his broad-brimmed, feathered hat to reveal hair as fiery as Ranma's girl-side. In a smooth voice that Nabiki would have sworn contained a hint of laughter, he solemnly intoned, "My Lady, our king desires your wondrous presence."
Suppressing another giggle (with more difficulty this time), Nabiki dipped in a practiced (much practiced) curtsey. "But of course, my lord, I am but his to command," she responded just as solemnly.
This time a hint of giggle escaped, and a grin flashed across Galardon's face. Straightening, he crooked an elbow. "Then may I have the singular honor of acting as your escort?"
Nabiki replied, "The honor is all mine, to be seen in the company of such a magnificent knight." She tucked a hand through the crook in his elbow and ignored the snort of strangled laughter from Aylara, simply nodding imperiously to her maidservant as she allowed Galardon to sweep her from the room.
The two kept up an exchange of barbs and innuendos as they descended down the stairwell that circled just inside the tower's outer wall. Nabiki was so thoroughly enjoying the exchange that she didn't even notice that they'd taken a slight detour, not until they stepped through a doorway and she realized that they were alone in a storeroom.
Instantly, she let go of Galardon's elbow and stepped away as she turned to face him. "Sirrah, this is most ungentlemanly!" she intoned, looking haughtily down her nose at him and hoping that the slight twist to her body hid her hand slipping through a specially designed slit in her dress to grip the small dagger strapped to her thigh.
Galardon had stayed by the doorway when Nabiki had stepped away from him, and now he backed up to lean against the door frame as he grinned at her. (She noted that he was angled so that he could both see her and have the corridor in his peripheral vision.) He said, "As much as I enjoy being alone in storerooms with pretty women, I'm afraid this is business. We need to talk before I deliver you to the king."
"So the king really did ask for me?"
He nodded. "Yes, but since I volunteered to fetch you he won't be surprised if we're somewhat delayed, and not just for my reputation as a womanizing flirt — I'm his day-to-day contact with the Silver Hand, you see."
Nabiki stiffened at the mention of the king's rumored spy organization, then her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "And just why are you telling me this?"
"Because we've found out that while two Nerimans set out for Durham, only Ukyo arrived. May I ask just where Konatsu ended up?"
"No, you may not," Nabiki instantly replied. "For one thing, I'll need to verify with King Conall that you are who you say you are, rather than simply a womanizing drunk that the king puts up with because you were his childhood companion." She tensed, ready for him to jump her, but he merely shrugged.
"My reputation makes for a perfect cover, doesn't it? Not a problem, I can wait — but not for too long, the king has a very ... interesting proposition for you." He frowned thoughtfully for a moment. "Our main concern is that we not trip over each other. While the Silver Hand's reputation is somewhat overblown, we do have some conspiracies moving forward." After another moment's hesitation he shrugged again. "Where we could really get in each other's way is Oakwood. You might have guessed that we're organizing a rebellion against Lord Brance, to kick off when word reaches them that we've taken Sterling. Would whatever you've planned interfere with that?"
Nabiki hesitated, but finally decided that she was at least partially busted. "How I answer that depends on the king says."
"Excellent!" Galardon straightened. "Then let's get you to the king, and he can explain what he has in store for you."
Nabiki motioned toward the hallway. "After you," she said dryly.
Galardon merely chuckled and turned toward the hallway, then paused and turned back around. "Uh, I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention that little conspiracy to the king. I believe your people call it 'need to know'."
Nabiki lifted an eyebrow. "The king doesn't need to know?" she asked.
"With everyone that he needs to be able to honestly assure that he knows nothing about any underhanded plans by the nefarious Silver Hand? Absolutely, he doesn't need to know. He isn't the best liar in the world — all that backwoods chivalric training during his childhood, you know, if he'd been raised in a properly corrupt court he'd do better."
Nabiki chuckled even as she motioned again toward the hallway with her free hand, still clutching her dagger with the other, and Galardon again turned his back on her to lead the way.
Nabiki sat bolt upright in her chair. "You want me to be what?!" she all but shrieked at the king.
"I want you to be my ambassador to Lord William of Wallace," Conall repeated, as calmly as if he'd suggested she accompany him for a day's jaunt to view the autumn colors.
"That's what I thought you said," Nabiki said, collapsing back. "You are all stark, raving mad."
Conall laughed. "Please, tell me what you really think," he said, "no need to concern yourself with my royal sensibilities." Nabiki's glare did nothing to quell his own broad grin. The grin vanished when he sat up, though, and he rubbed at tired eyes. "At least, there's no need to be concerned in private, and not too loud," he added. "As much as I enjoy those that don't play the courtier game, I do have a public image I need to maintain." Straightening, he asked, "So why do you think it's a bad idea?"
Nabiki rolled her eyes, careful to keep her expression free of the sympathy she thought the king wouldn't appreciate. "Oh, I don't know ... too young, too female, my Anglic still has rough edges, I'm not Christian, my skin's too dark, will that do for starters?"
Conall shrugged. "Your age and sex might be an issue if I was sending you to negotiate with him, but I'm not — not officially, at least. Officially, you're just delivering in person the same invitation to attend the first meeting of the Grand Councils come spring that the broadsheets my people will distribute will offer his people. Unofficially, I would be more than happy if you could negotiate a separate peace within the limits I'll give you. And for that negotiation, your age, sex and obvious foreignness may actually be an asset — he doesn't trust me, Myrddin, or anyone else associated with me at all, but he may be more willing to trust you. And what does the color of your skin have to do with anything?"
Nabiki stared at him for a moment, then waved it off. "Later. It would take too long to adequately explain, and it's irrelevant, anyway." Still, as backward as she found her new world there were aspects of it that she definitely liked, and the lack of racism as even a concept was one of them.
She sat up straight in her chair again and asked, "So you really think I can talk Lord William around?"
Conall shrugged again. "Realistically, probably not — he's a stubborn old man, loyal to his friends, and really doesn't trust me. But you'll have a better chance than anyone else we have available."
Nabiki mused, "And once you take down Lord Towne of Sterling the situation will have changed, he may be looking for a way out." She nodded. "Okay, so what are the limits within which I can negotiate?"
Over an hour later, Nabiki rubbed at aching temples, head full of whirling facts, opinions and suggestions that might be related to each other and relevant to what she found when she arrived at Wallace ... or might not. Why anyone wanted to be royalty was beyond her, just getting pulled into the center of one of the king's crisis fires was making her head hurt. "Is there anything else that I need to know about right away, Your Majesty? Because if not, I need to talk to the seamstresses right away." She had suggested, and the king agreed, that arriving on horseback rather than in a palanquin would allow her to move faster while appearing stronger and more exotic, but now she needed to have dresses modified so she could wear them while riding astride (sidesaddle just wouldn't do for the image she was trying for).
Conall shook his head. "No, that should cover it."
"Great!" She stood and stretched, suppressing a smile at the way the king's eyes followed her curves (and forgetting that she was supposed to wait for the king to rise first). She turned toward the door, then paused and turned back, waving a hand toward Galardon in the seat by the window he'd occupied since escorting her into the king's presence. "By the way, Sir Galardon tells me that he's your contact with the Silver Hand. Is that true?"
Conall started, eyebrows rising. "Yes. Yes, he is," he replied.
"Good to know." She turned toward Galardon. "No," she said, then swept from the room. She was not looking forward to spending the next hours as a pin cushion. While some noble women had maidservants that matched their shape and height to act as seamstresses' dummies, Nabiki wasn't a noblewoman. And besides, she hadn't seen any maidservants that matched her height and body type.
Conall watched Nabiki sweep from the room, then turned to the head of his Silver Hand. He asked, "What was that about?"
Galardon chuckled, shaking his head. "Nothing you need to know about, Con," he said, "just making certain we aren't working at cross-purposes."
" 'Working at cross-purposes'?" Conall repeated, eyes narrowing. "Is she beginning to ... play?"
"Maybe a little," Galardon replied, shrugging. "It's a good thing you came up with this ambassadorship, I think she was beginning to get bored."
"Bored!" Conall shuddered, thinking of the quick-witted, dry-humored, sometimes sharp-tongued young woman that had attended his councils — and what Archbishop Siccius had written in his letter of his own impressions of her. What a woman like that could get up to if she started trying to 'entertain' herself didn't bear thinking on ... though if all that sharp-edged intelligence could be harnessed to his own purposes... "Gale, sometime between your wenching and tavern-crawling, give thought to who might be an appropriate match for her."
Galardon's eyebrows rose. "An arranged marriage?" he asked doubtfully. "If her people are anything like the other banestorm victims that have arrived here lately, she won't care for the idea at all."
Conall shrugged. "Perhaps, but those other victims were from the opposite side of the world, maybe her people are different. And if they are, a marriage or two to more closely bind their fate to ours wouldn't be amiss. And we can certainly make good use of her ... of them all."
"True." Galardon hauled himself to his feet. "And speaking of wenching and tavern-crawling, I'd better get to it. I'll let you know if anything comes up you need to hear."